"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, August 29, 2016

"Poor Children Have Smaller Brains"

It is a dangerous headline for it implies fate. It is harmful as it suggests intellectual inferiority on those who are born to poverty. Yet, a similar headline can be seen even from the news section of the science journal Nature: "Poverty shrinks brains from birth".

Above copied from Nature
The above headline is actually a lot more sensational than the headline employed by the research article described in the news article.

Above copied from Nature Neuroscience
Unfortunately, a lot of people often do not go beyond the headline. Obviously, people are even less expected to read the original article. One simply has to see one of the graphs in the research article to appreciate what the differences really are:

Above copied from
Noble, K. G. et alNature Neurosci. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nn.3983 (2015).
Sadly, people probably would likewise fail to see and read the following paragraph from the research article:
"As a final point, our results should in no way imply that a child’s socioeconomic circumstances lead to an immutable trajectory of cognitive or brain development. Many other factors account for variance in brain morphometry; indeed, our data show marked variability in brain structure at all SES levels, including among the most disadvantaged children."
More than a year has passed since the publication of this study, Erika Hayasaki of Newsweek adds an important section to this discussion in her article,"How Poverty Affects the Brain":
The New Eugenics? 
The headlines around this emerging neurological research are startling and troubling—“How Poverty Stunts Kids’ Brain Development.” “Poverty Shrinks Brains From Birth.” “Why Poor People Seem to Make Bad Decisions.”
Shonkoff says this type of language is a “dangerous, slippery slope. It’s one thing to say, ‘We on average see less gray matter, less surface area.’ It’s another for people to conclude, ‘Oh, you’re brain damaged.…’ This unfairly stigmatizes people.” Without context, poverty-brain research could fuel misguided beliefs involving racial disparities in intelligence or the inherent inferiority of the poor. It could also be used to justify racism. 
“We run the risk of these findings becoming fodder for a nouveau eugenics movement,” says Matthew Hughey, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. “The easily dispensed adage that ‘the poor’s brains are different’ is an all-too-easy, scary and simply wrong-headed approach.”
Poverty is correlated with less gray matter, less surface area. This is true but the correlation in this case is not a clear-cut cause-effect relationship such that if a child is born to a poor family, the child is certain to have a smaller brain. The difference between the average surface area of a child growing up in poverty and that of a child born to affluent parents is easily dwarfed by the variability within any given income level. Poverty does not decide which children will do better in school. We do. If we continue not to provide quality care and basic education to poor children then we are the ones perpetuating the cycle of poverty.



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